Red Oaks Forest School
In the woods of Eastern Kentucky, if you stray a bit off the beaten path, you might just stumble upon a group of enthusiastic (and probably rather dirty) children learning through outdoor play. Welcome to Red Oaks Forest School - a place where kids build everything from forts to friendships, learn about ecology, deepen their connection with the natural world, and leave ready to face life’s challenges.
Can you share a bit about how Red Oaks began and how you've grown into the programming you offer today?
In 2014, we began with a simple plan to commit to time outside on a regular basis. This basic idea has expanded into a wealth of nature-immersion programming. We began with our homeschool program, which brought homeschool kids and their parents together in the Red River Gorge for outdoor activities, social engagement, environmental education, free play, and a taste of adventure. We forged a community of people invested not only in the natural world, but also in each other and each other’s kids. We found ourselves camping with families who had never camped before and hiking in the rain with parents who had previously been reluctant to take their kids outside on less than perfect days. The consensus was clear: rain or shine, this was the best part of our kids’ week.
In 2018, we crossed paths with a very generous family who hoped to use their land to help educate a future generation of environmentally conscious citizens, which aligned with the mission of Red Oaks Forest School. Thanks to this partnership, our programming has expanded. In addition to our weekly homeschool days, we now offer a parent-toddler program, a drop off preschool program, and a new drop off for elementary students, as well as family workshops.
You offer a wide range of nature-based programs at Red Oaks. Is there one program that you feel has been the most successful?
We owe the strength of our community to our Homeschool Days, and it’s from those roots that the newer branches of Red Oaks have grown. It was through our early experiences with our homeschool program that we came to appreciate the importance of preserving opportunities for kids of all ages to test their physical and mental limits, engage in imaginary play, and explore the world around them.
How do you see the values (wonder, exploration, compassion, community) of Red Oaks demonstrated through your programming?
Nature immersion is at the core of our values. Immersed in nature, we open ourselves to experiences of wonder and awe. We become explorers: learning, rising to challenges, growing. As these experiences are shared, they become the starting place for friendships and community. When we are rooted in a community and connected with the natural world, compassion follows.
Because nature immersion is our core value, all our programs are held outdoors, rain or shine. This simple plan reinforces our other values that we strive to incorporate in all of our programming.
You have some pretty ambitious and exciting goals for the future of Red Oaks. One goal mentions that you want to provide opportunities for quality, place-based educational programs for underserved populations in Eastern Kentucky. Tell us more about how you hope to meet that goal.
Red Oaks is situated among some of the poorest communities in the country. Though these kids are literally surrounded by nature, a variety of factors, including rising anxiety about safety and the outdoors, prevent them from accessing it. Our goal is to partner with local preschools so that their students can experience our Mighty Acorns preschool program one day per week. We also plan to offer continuing education for teachers. By serving preschool teachers and preschool students, we can improve school readiness and create a lasting impact for these children and their families.
Our Taking Flight program offers kids the opportunity to work with ornithologists from the University of Kentucky to study local bird populations and engage in citizen science. It too has been designed with the intention of offering participation opportunities to underserved groups. We hope to offer free after-school or weekend programming to local kids who want to pursue a future in science and wildlife biology. With early access to hands-on wildlife science, they will have an opportunity to collect data, participate in ongoing research with possible authorship, and help design studies with important conservation value to the research community. Regardless of their life path, the wildlife interaction alone is sure to invoke wonder, compassion and emotional investment in the natural world.